The Responsibility of the Scholar

What is the responsibility of the academically trained scholar in Mormonism? As more LDSs go to graduate schools (or even various undergraduate institutions) and study religion, this becomes an interesting question. I’m defining “scholar” here as someone who has graduated from a institution of higher education focusing specifically on religion (broadly conceived). This isn’t meant to position one type of scholar above another, but to ask a specific question about what our expectations are from this group of people.

Do we expect them to “reaffirm faith”? If so, concretely what does this mean? Should they, for instance, only teach things that encourage people to come to church (for the “right” reasons of course)? Or can they opperate free from the results of their teachings in pursuit of certain questions (Was Jesus divine for the NT authors, for instance)?

Do we expect them to “challenge faith”? If so, how? Can they only challenge the faith in such a way that the challenge must be completely resolved (leaving the questioner with a “stronger testimony”, usually measured by higher activity in the church)? Or can they complicate things in such a way that the world appears more complex, more ambiguous, and less cut and dry?

Do we expect them to sit quietly in church settings and treat their profession as a separate from their faith? In other words do we have the same expectations of them that we would have from any member of the church–i.e., help out as needed (the VCR repairman is great to have around when the VCR breaks, so likewise the scholar is good to have around when a question, usually of historical nature, comes up that others can’t answer)?

I’m interested to hear from the academically trained as well. What do you see as your resopnsibility to the Mormon community?

9 Replies to “The Responsibility of the Scholar”

  1. My opinion:

    If they accept a calling to teach in the church, they should not, in the context of performing their calling, do things that would undermine faith. (And I probably define this more narrowly than most: I’ve taken on everything from BoA to Noah’s nonuniversal flood in GD–but done it in a non-threatening way.)

    In the context of their professional work, they should write/teach whatever the best evidence leads them to conclude. At some point (again: very narrowly defined) there may be church-discipline consequences to doing that, but there you go.

  2. Great post. Without tackling you list of questions, I’d reframe the question this way: Being a scholar (of anything) creates a set of expectations, which might even rise to the level of a set of duties. And being a Mormon (in particular, an active church-attending Mormon) creates a set of expectations, which arguably rise to the level of a set of duties (generally termed “covenants,” a word which cleverly conveys both a legal and a religious sense). Being in a leadership position creates additional expectations and duties (or increases the intensity of the basic set).

    Your inquiry is best seen as the question of what a person does when these two sets of expectations or two sets of duties present a conflict. As such, it is not a unique problem. Lots of people have to deal with these sorts of conflicts.

    Rather than blather in general ways, it helps to propose a specific conflict and work it through. I like Julie’s example, which raises the particular question: What is the duty of someone who is called to teach in the Church? Her answer: Not to teach or do anything that would undermine faith. That’s a fair and workable answer that help solve perceived conflicts. If a scholar can accept that duty to not undermine faith, they can accept a calling and teach. If they think their scholarly duties would “require” them to teach things that undermine faith, then they should not accept such a calling.

    Obviously, the question of just what “duties” attend any given social role is a rather involved and complicated one.

  3. It seems to me that in church LDS religious scholars are pulling from a larger bank of data/revelation than they are pulling from in professional settings. At church they are dealing with the whole of ancient and modern revelation (all of our standard works plus varying degrees of weight being given to non-canonized modern preachings) when discussion theological/metaphysical topics. They usually are only pulling from biblical texts in professional settings and thus different conclusions might be drawn based on the different knowledge banks being drawn from.

  4. Julie,

    If I’m understanding you correctly, you would employ a kind of bifurcation to balance the different responsibilities–in church don’t say anything that could be taken the wrong way; and at work puruse scholarship in the course it takes you, being aware of what those consequences might be. Is that correct?


    Thank you for raising the issue of duties and covenants in regards to specific social roles. I think this is very helpful to the discussion.

    I am interested though, that both you and Julie define the scholar’s responsibility in the negative sense–don’t undermine faith (I’m guessing what we mean by this something to the effect of, “Don’t do or say anything that would cause others to stop coming to, and actively participating in church.”). This of course has a universalizing effect, which as you point out, is not unique to the role of the scholar studying/researching/teaching religion. In other words this is the responsibility of every LDS.

    I’m not sure this is entirely the right approach, however. While I agree with it from one angle, from another it seems that these individuals bring something to the table that others don’t. A psychologist might have competing tensions with his/her testinmony and her/his Freudian training, but what she/he does, does not directly bear on the issue of what our sacred texts mean, what our history is, and what our relationship is within larger picture of “religion”. In other words these people are “experts” of sorts in that which intersects directly with “Mormonism”. While individuals such as Bushman or Nibley may have the same negative responsibilities as other members (i.e., don’t undermine faith), I’m wondering if they don’t have a different set of positive reponsibilities not defined by their “social role” (understood as a calling).

    Part of the problem, IMO, is that there is no social role apart from a calling that scholars of religion have within Mormonism. Aside from a handful of individuals we haven’t had to deal with this group of people before. And therefore, in many regards we have to create new and different space. To make it more concrete, we live a society that gives credence to those who have earned degrees from colleges/universities. Even within church, someone who studied the Bible at Yale will probably be given greater ear, than someone who has not (although we know this certainly doesn’t mean the Yale grad’s opinion will always be better). Should that not be the case? Is the only use the community has for these people is for them to “not screw it up” (i.e., not undermine faith)? Or are there a set of positive responsibilities? And are scholars willing to accept those positive responsibilities (if there are any), even if they are not always sure where their scholarship is taking them?

  5. SmallAxe,

    That’s about right. I don’t see an affirmative duty. While I suppose it would be gracious if the scholar were willing to do firesides, counsel members with questions, etc., I don’t think it is right to expect that any more than we would expect an MD to provide free medical advice to ward members.

    I can tell you in reality that even just having an MA, and a dusty one at that, the reality is that even without a formal calling (or affirmative duty) to do something with my training, I end up doing a lot with it–I’m the one the GD teacher looks at when he’s stumped in the middle of class, I’m the one doing HFPE nights on how to read your scriptures for wards in our area, I’m the one teaching the BYU Adult Religion Class for the stake, etc., etc. I’m happy with that situation and I don’t know that a formal role (whatever that might look like) would be any better for me or for anyone else involved.

  6. Geoff,

    I’m not sure exactly how your comment relates to the notion of responsibility of the scholar, perhaps you could clarify; and it’s furthermore unclear as to how a scholar could reach one conclusion in a professional setting, and another at church, and hold to both of those being correct.


    Perhaps I should clarify myself. I’m not asking what official responsibilities the church should require from scholars (although, this might be interesting, I’m not sure how far this kind of discussion could go); but instead, what do we as a community see as the responsibility of the scholar. In your scenario it does seem true that you have some “affirmative duty” (not official, of course), otherwise you wouldn’t be asked to teach the adult religion classes, etc. IMO, this is quite different from your example of the MD for several reasons: In GD the teacher doesn’t turn to the MD (unless perhaps fielding a medical question) to answer questions. The stake doesn’t ask the MD to teach the HFPE on scripture reading. If given the chance to have the MD or you teach the Adult Religion courses, they choose you. If I understand you correctly, your point is that this may be a difference in degree of responsibility, and not a difference in kind of responsibility. Assuming this to be true though, there still seems to be an extra layer of responsibilities for the scholar simply because what he or she does as a profession intersects more directly with our religion than that which the MD does. I’m not sure it would be helpful quantify this by saying the MD will do 1 fireside a year, and the scholar will do 6; but I am looking for a way to articulate that “extra layer”.

  7. Sorry smallaxe — I wasn’t very clear in that comment. I’m having difficulty articulating my meaning on this for whatever reason.

    You said: furthermore unclear as to how a scholar could reach one conclusion in a professional setting, and another at church, and hold to both of those being correct.

    I’m thinking of the example of whether the NT authors believed or at least taught that Jesus was God or not. I think TT is right that there is very little evidence in the texts that anyone but John thought Jesus was “God”. (Though defining “God” is another tough theological issue altogether.) So I see no problems with arguing for that based on the Biblical texts alone.

    But discerning the metaphysical truths about the nature of Jesus is not the same as discerning the opinions of the NT authors. So unless we assume infallibility in the opinions of the NT authors (something I don’t think we should assume) then two things issues can be treated separately. In a professional setting one could argue that many of the NT authors didn’t think Jesus was “God” or “a God” or “a god” or whatever. But a Mormon scholar could personally believe that he was some variation on those things based on modern revelations — none of which could be cited in professional settings.

    I’m not sure exactly how your comment relates to the notion of responsibility of the scholar, perhaps you could clarify

    I guess I can see the the professional responsibilities of a religious scholar are largely to read the publicly common texts and let the chips fall as they may in the interpretations of the authors intentions. But a Mormon religious scholar has the advantage of God’s opinions on several theological matters through additional scriptures so that should affect the personal position s/he has on theological matters even when the Biblical texts don’t explicitly lead to those conclusions in the absence of those modern revelations…

    So one could argue that the authors of the Bible outside of John don’t really treat Jesus as God and that would be a responsible professional position. But that same scholar could also privately believe and argue that in some nuanced sense that Jesus really is God based on the additional information available through modern revelations and that would also be a responsible thing to do.

  8. I think that Tim fairly captures the way that many scholars approach this issue. The ethical point at stake is that for many members that statement constitutes a challenge to the faith. While I agree that in an official capacity one should not directly challenge the faith of another, the problem is that this is easier said than done. What one person takes to be a challenge another person takes to be an affirmation. For instance, the limited geography model for the BoM is seen by many as a direct challenge to the GA’s who have taught a hemespheric model, while for others this is the only way that their faith in the BoM can be preserved.

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